Beyond tacos and pasta: 5 trending international cuisines
Ever tried Turkish pizza, Nepalese momos or West African maafe? Your next international food adventure might be closer than you think
February 13, 2019 11 min read
Like its population, America’s tastes are diverse and evolving. A few generations ago, Italian, Mexican and American-Chinese restaurants could have been considered the more unique international dining options throughout the United States. Then, Greek, Thai and Indian food found their way into the mix. Today, you don’t have to travel halfway across the world to try something new and exciting—you just might find it halfway across town.
Look out for these 5 new cuisines popping up in places big and small.
1. Turkish cuisine
Turkish food is influenced by Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, and shares many of the same ingredients and styles of preparation. You’ll find lamb kebabs, seafood, an amazing array of breakfast pastries and all the olive oil you can handle. Turkey also has a unique take on coffee and tea that caffeine fans shouldn’t pass up (be sure to specify “Turkish coffee” when you order).
A first-timer can dive right in and order lahmacun, which is pronounced (and sometimes spelled) “lahmajoun.” It’s also called Turkish pizza—and like pizza in the U.S., lahmacun is a casual dining mainstay in Turkey. It’s made with a thin dough and topped with a blend of minced meat, garlic, onions and parsley. Then it’s tossed in the oven until it’s crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
Chef Asli Mutlu lives in Turkey and hosts Turkish cooking classes through “The Chef & The Dish”—a service offering private cooking lessons over live video conferences. Her family has a long history with lahmacun, and she thinks a wood-fired oven makes all the difference if you can find one, but you can get by with a pizza oven.
When your lahmacun arrives fresh from the oven, things get interesting. Unlike pizza, there’s no sauce or cheese, but there are a host of other topping options. You’ll find anything from flavorful red pepper flakes to sumac, fresh parsley, onions, tomatoes and more. Toss them on top, squeeze some fresh lemon juice over it all, and (the best part) roll that bad boy up like a sleeping bag. Chef Mutlu recommends pairing it with ayran (a popular salty yogurt drink) and a nice salad.
2. Nepalese cuisine
Mountainous Nepal is nestled between India and Tibet, and Nepalese food offers a take on the cuisines of those neighboring countries. You’ll find the familiar flavors of Northern Indian cooking mixed with Tibetan and East Asian influences—like lentils and curries alongside more Eastern-inspired noodle and dumpling dishes.
Momos are Nepal’s unique take on handmade—typically steamed—dumplings. They’re traditionally filled with seasoned, minced water buffalo, or other meat and vegetable blends. These are not to be missed.
Swadesh Shrestha owns Chiya Chai, a popular chai cafe in Chicago featuring a colorful Nepalese menu. He remembers spending full days making momos with his family—a fun but arduous and chaotic task when you don’t have a commercial kitchen. The end result—a juicy and savory treat—was always worth it when shared with family and friends.
Swadesh recommends a tangy dipping sauce made with fresh tomatoes, cilantro and green chilis, but you’ll find a variety of other sauces from different regions. His most important tip: “Don’t put them in your mouth when they’re too hot or you’ll scald your mouth. When they are the right temperature, try to put a whole one in your mouth if possible. Cutting up a momo into pieces will let all the juice out, and it won’t be the same delicious experience.”
3. Filipino cuisine
A mix of Southeast Asian traditions and ingredients paired with Spanish flair, food from the Philippines will make you smile. There’s no better example of an international food representing a fusion of East and West. Approximately 7,641 islands make up the Philippines, and they’re home to as many as 144 distinct ethno-linguistic groups—many with their own tastes and traditions. You’ll find coconut curries and rice dishes reminiscent of Thai cooking alongside paella and sausage dishes from the West.
Adobo is a staple in Filipino households and restaurants alike, and despite the Spanish name, it has its origins in Tagalog culture. It’s a great place to start.
Natalia Roxas founded Filipino Kitchen, a food media and events company in Chicago. She was quick to clarify that adobo is less a specific dish and more of a cooking technique. Derived from the Spanish for “marinade,” adobo consists of braising meat or a meat substitute using something salty and something sour—usually soy sauce and a vinegar, like rice or palm vinegar—and seasoning with black pepper, garlic and bay leaves.
Adobo is a very flexible protein that can be served in a burrito or a sandwich. Natalia’s advice? “Remember that there is no one way to enjoy adobo. Make it fit your lifestyle and dietary needs. That’s the beauty of adobo,” she says, adding, “But if you ask any Filipino, it’s best enjoyed with a bowl of steaming jasmine rice.”
4. Peruvian cuisine
Familiar ingredients enhanced with South American spices give Peruvian cooking a fresh, but accessible appeal. One of the more common Peruvian restaurant concepts popping up in the U.S. are charcoal rotisserie chicken spots with a fast-casual vibe. If you can find a proper sit-down Peruvian restaurant in your area, jump on it. But if not, the casual spots offer something special, including a blend of sides and other offerings you won’t find on a typical American menu.
Papa a la huancaína is Peru’s most popular take on potato salad, and it’s something you’ll want to keep a lookout for. Sure, potato salad might not sound glamorous—but just wait until you try this dish.
Fernando Ciurlizza, sales director at La Bonne Cuisine Catering and Events, was born and raised in Peru before coming to Oakland, California. His background inspires many of their menu offerings, including a “causa” (or potato salad) station where people can build their own variations of papa a la huancaína or other potato salads.
Fernando recommends the classic version: Yukon Gold potatoes covered with a silky, creamy sauce made of queso fresco, milk, garlic and ahi amarillo (Peruvian yellow chili peppers). It’s usually served on top of romaine leaves, then topped with halved hard-boiled eggs and kalamata olives. The really special ingredient is the ahi amarillo, which comes from a family of peppers that can be hard to find in the U.S. Unlike the more common jalapeños, poblanos, and bell peppers, ahi amarillo has heat that’s tempered by a fruity finish.
5. Pan-African cuisine
It’s unfair to put an entire continent of foods and cultures into a single bucket, but it can be tough to find food from a specific African region consistently represented at restaurants throughout the U.S. Ethiopian restaurants are popping up more frequently, and you may find other regions of African cuisine at restaurants in your area. If you take a little time to look, you may even find interesting alternatives to restaurants, like Dine Diaspora, a company that hosts pop-up events in Washington, D.C. (and soon in New York). Luckily, from Ghana in the west to Ethiopia in the east, many parts of Africa have their own take on some shared dishes.
You’ll find that a lot of African cooking—especially from Western Africa—has qualities and ingredients similar to American Southern cuisine, which makes it friendly and filling. Peanuts—sometimes called groundnuts—are one of those commonalities. In Virginia, for example, peanut soup is a household tradition going back to colonial times, but you’ll also find varieties of peanut soup on menus throughout Africa.
Maafe is more of a peanut stew than a soup, and it can come loaded with a variety of meats, tomatoes, seasonal vegetables and spices. World-renowned Senegalese-born chef, restaurateur and author Pierre Thiam pairs his maafe with fonio, a small grain common in West Africa. But you can also serve it with rice, bread or other grains. In Ghana, a less dense version of maafe—known as groundnut or peanut soup—can be seen paired with fufu (a doughy blend of cassava and plantain flour). If you like peanuts, maafe’s for you.
Don’t stop there.
Other new international cuisines are popping up throughout the U.S. Take some time to explore the corners of your town or neighboring cities. Plenty of people travel the world to experience new food, but these days, you may only have to travel down the street.